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TEXT: Psalm 120
SUBJECT: Songs on the Way to Heaven #1
Today, with God's help, we will begin to study Psalms 120-134. The numbers were not chosen at random, but they belong together in a special way. If you read the caption on each one, you'll find it is A Song of Degrees or maybe, A Song of Ascents.
Do you know what the words mean? The degrees are not marks on a thermometer, but refer to the steepness of a hill. If you've been up to Cal State Hayward, you've seen the yellow sign at the bottom of Harder Road. It says, 18* grade, which means the road is a steep one. Ascents tell you which way the road is going-uphill.
The Psalms, therefore, were sung as the People of God made their way uphill to Jerusalem, and to the Temple, built on its highest peak. They could be sung at any time the trip was made, but mostly, they were sung when the people went up for the Passover, Pentecost, or some other holiday. If we hum Jingle Bells on the way to the mall, they chanted Psalms on the way to Mount Zion.
If this is how they used the Psalms, what use can we make of them? We don't go to Jerusalem to worship God, and if we did, we would not find His Temple there. So what do we do with the Songs of Degrees?
We sing them in light of the New Covenant. Pious Jews visited the Temple, which was only a copy of the real one. United to Jesus Christ, we're on our way to the original. These are, therefore, Songs on the Way to Heaven.
THE WAY THINGS ARE
If these are what I said they are, you'd think they would be, well, rather heavenly. But the first one is anything but. Our man finds himself very much on earth, and about chin deep in the mud. In my Bible, I counted sixteen lines in the Psalm-- and only one of them might be called positive (might be).
All the rest are angry and bitter, hurt and scared. Our man is being lied about, and he compares the hateful words to a captivity (v.2), to a war (v.4), to a wandering among vicious tribesmen (v.5), and to a squabble that never ends (v.6)!
If I were the musical director of Israel, I would not have put this Psalm where it is. It seems a remarkably wrong-headed way to start a worship service! Song leaders usually begin with upbeat songs, hymns full of praise and thanksgiving. But God's worship leader starts with a real downer!
And we're glad he did because Psalm 120 describes the world as it really is. The world is a messed-up place, as a wise man once observed,
Man that is born of woman is few of days and full of trouble.
Believers in Christ share in the troubles to which the human race is born. If God makes His sun to rise on the evil, He also makes it sunburn the good! We have the same worries other people do-sickness, unemployment, loneliness, boredom, too much to do, the problems of old age, death, and wondering how to pay for your own funeral!
Distress may come from afar, but more often it comes from the people whom we love the most and expect the most from. If the Philistines never laid a glove on David, his wife and children broke his heart all to pieces.
Without buying into his whole philosophy, the Psalmist would have agreed with Jean Paul Sartre's best-known line-
Hell is other people.
WHY THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY ARE
Why are things the way the are? How come the world is upside down? Why do good men get lied about and liars get away with it?
Looked at from below, the answer is an easy one: Sin is the reason things are the way they are. Sin entered the world, and with it death, and all the things that lead up to death, like gossip, lies, slander, and libel. This answer is completely true, and mostly satisfying.
But it doesn't answer a deeper question. Why would God permit such things to go on in the world? Being able to shut the mouths of liars, why doesn't He do it-and sooner the better?
My favorite Christian writer-by far-is C.S. Lewis. He believed God could have stopped sin from entering into the world. He suggested that He might have sent an elephant into the Garden of Eden to 'accidentally' step on the serpent! But He didn't do that-Lewis says-because He wanted man to obey Him of his own free will. Which he couldn't do unless there was the possibility of not obeying Him. In other words, if man was to be what he was meant to be, God must risk the danger of man falling into sin.
The argument-like everything Lewis ever wrote-is magnificent. But it's not true. And I can prove it. Will the saints be able to sin in heaven? If we can, heaven be lost, and eternal life is not quite eternal. If, on the other hand, we cannot sin in heaven, then we cannot be what God meant us to be. But the fact is, we cannot sin in heaven and that is just what God meant us to be-free to not sin!
Thus, the world is not the way it is because (1) God could not prevent it, or because (2) He could not prevent it without making us less than He wants us to be.
If these are false answers to the question of why the world is the way it is, what is the true answer? I can tell you, but you may not like it: We don't know. If you think I've copped out (or worse) you're wrong. This is precisely the answer the Bible gives us, Deuteronomy 29:29-
Secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Law.
God knows why He let the world become the way it is, but He's not telling us. What He's telling us is how to live in the world the way the world is!
THE WAY THINGS WILL BE
The Psalm seems nearly hopeless. The only glimmer of light is in the last part of v.1, where God is said to have heard our man's prayer. But even though He gave him a polite hearing, He's not doing anything about it. If the Psalm starts with our man in distress, it ends with him at war.
As far as I can see there is no movement toward a solution. The Lord does not stop the liars and He doesn't give our man the patience to put up with them. This is what's in the Psalm-despair or something very like it.
But what was the setting for the Psalm? It was a Song of Ascents, sung on the way to the place of God's Presence, Power, and Pity.
This means, in the first place, that troubles don't cut us off from God's fellowship. While everybody was lying about the Psalmist, the Lord was welcoming him into the Temple. The most hated man in Israel was loved by the God of Israel!
This recalls the story of two men at prayer. The Pharisee, whom everyone admired, praying long and loud and full of himself-and going away unjust. The Publican, on the other hand, was despised by everyone and even despised himself. But beating his breast for mercy, he went home justified.
What other people think about you doesn't matter to God. He does not listen to gossip or go along with the crowd. If He's pleased with you, it doesn't matter what others say.
Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies!
I don't take this word, 'justifies' to refer to what God does for us when we believe in Christ, but what He does for us every day and-especially-- what He will do for us on the Day of Judgment. Every day people condemn you-and sometimes its you who condemns you-and every day God clears you of the charges for Christ's sake. And one day, every mouth will be stopped-including your own-when the Lord says,
Well done, you good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord!
This is an important part interpreting the Psalm, but there's another, more important.
Pilgrims to Jerusalem weren't traveling for the sake of the journey; they were traveling for the sake of getting there! Which, in time, they did.
In the same way, we're not going to heaven for the sake of going to heaven; we going to heaven to get to heaven! It's not the journey that matters, but the destination! When we reach heaven, we'll find a world the way it is meant to be! Liars will be excluded and the ones they lied about will be welcome.
The world is not as it ought to be. But it will be that way, and it won't be long either. We often say 'we're going to heaven'-and that's right, we are. But the more Biblical way of putting it is this-Heaven is coming to us. Revelation does not end with a Rapture of saints flying to heaven like a flock of geese or maybe an arsenal of nuclear missiles! It ends with the New Jerusalem, decorated for a wedding, coming to earth-coming to fill us with a happiness beyond our craziest dreams!
The song has a melancholy tune. But we haven't gotten to the end of it yet. It ends with the Alleluia Chorus-and one better than Handel's!
WHAT TO DO UNTIL THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY WILL BE
It's wonderful to think about the world that will soon be here. And we ought to do this far more than we do. But this is not our entire calling. While looking forward to the new world, we have to live in the old one as well. How do we do that?
Live cynically. When the President promises to wipe out the powers of darkness, listen politely, but remember he's not going to do it! When the homeschooler says, 'Homeschooling will save America', say, God bless you, but remember it won't. When the liberal says raising the Social Security Tax will guarantee a happy future for all, keep your fingers crossed, but remember, it won't do it. Psalm 120 describes the world as it was back then, as it is today, and as it will be until Christ comes again! Do what you can to make things better, but remember, the return of Christ is the Blessed Hope.
Live patiently. The world is an awful mess, but it won't be this way forever. Knowing this won't make things easy for you in the here and now, but it will enable you to make the best of things the way they are, or as the English like to say, To muddle through somehow.
Live hopefully. The prophets of doom are wrong! Many bad things may lie in the next few years, but for God's People, the future is bright. Jesus Christ will come again, and He'll make all things new-and the way they ought to be. I've read a great many books of all kinds, but the kind that is most in line with the Bible is the traditional fairy tale that ends,
And they all lived happily ever after.
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